This is part three of a four-part excerpt from Richard Miniter's new book Losing Bin Laden, which is available for $20 from the FrontPage Magazine Bookstore. Read parts one and two.
Clinton Administration counter-terrorism czar Richard Clarke helped develop a daring covert-operation plan. Helicopters launched from an aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean would deposit Special Forces near a bin Laden camp. Hours before dawn, using night-vision scopes, the commandos would surprise bin Laden's guards and kill or capture the arch-terrorist. But the plan had to run a bureaucratic obstacle course.
The first hurdle was cleared in the spring of 1998. In the middle of "Monica-gate," Clinton signed a secret memorandum of notification — informally called a "finding" — that explicitly allowed the CIA and other U.S. armed forces to take actions that might lead to bin Laden's death. Before the finding was signed, the military and the CIA were supposed to avoid any action that might, conceivably, result in the death of bin Laden or other targeted persons. Unfortunately, the finding was not a death warrant. Clinton's order did not overturn a long-standing ban on political assassinations. The legal distinction was Clintonesque: Bin Laden could be killed accidentally, but not on purpose. So, a covert team could accidentally shoot bin Laden in the crossfire, but not aim at him. At least inside America's increasingly rule-laden intelligence services, this was seen as a major bureaucratic step forward. Operatives no longer had to avoid actions that might set off a chain of events that might possibly result in bin Laden's death. If bin Laden was killed, the covert team would have little to fear from military or Justice Department lawyers. Ordinarily, if a covert operation turned lethal, a federal criminal investigation could be launched.
The next bureaucratic hurdle was bigger: What if bin Laden was taken alive? CIA analysts considered that possibility remote — they believed that bin Laden would "martyr" himself rather than be taken a prisoner. But if bin Laden was captured, the policy was that he would be put on trial. Moving along a parallel track, the FBI and a New York U.S. Attorney had been preparing charges against bin Laden since January 1998. Bin Laden was accused of murdering Americans in Somalia in 1993 and in Riyadh in 1995, among other offenses. The secret charges were formally handed up by a grand jury sometime in the spring of 1998. The indictment was sealed and remained secret for months. But it was in force. Now, by summer 1998, the second hurdle was cleared. The Justice Department had a plan for putting bin Laden on trial.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Special Forces Command and CIA planners continued to draft a detailed operations plan. All of the elements were in place for a bold covert operation to take bin Laden, dead or alive. But it was the plan, not bin Laden, that was soon killed.
The problem was the CIA, Clarke told the author. Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet asked that the plan be extensively revised, touching off another months-long cycle of meetings, drafts, and consultations. Tenet's stated reasons sounded as if he was either repeating or anticipating White House objections. Bin Laden and his band often traveled with their wives and children, raising the risk of unintended civilian deaths. That would be unacceptable to the president. (Of course, bin Laden had no qualms about civilian deaths.) Tenet wanted better safeguards for non-combatants.
Yet another concern came from the Pentagon: U.S. military casualties. Once a firefight began, it would be very difficult to extract wounded or trapped soldiers. If the mission went sour, dozens of Americans would be dead and bin Laden might escape. The military wanted a war without casualties or risks. The planners went back to the drawing board.
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Henry H. Shelton, opposed a small Special Forces operation. Rather than oppose the operation directly, the general fell back on a favorite Pentagon tactic: counteroffer with a proposed operation so large that the president and his senior staff would back down. This is a time-honored technique for killing ideas that the Pentagon opposes. Without giving away his motivation, Shelton explained his reasoning to Barton Gellman of the Washington Post. "The greatest risk is that you would have a helicopter or a [special-operations] aircraft that would encounter mechanical problems over those great distances, or you have an accident. You want to have the capability if that happens to go in and get them, which means a combat search-and-rescue capability, and if you want to send those people in, you have to have an air-refueling operation." At that point, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen would be involved, as well as several ships and dozens of aircraft. That was far from the small, surgical operation Clarke and others had in mind.
So, in the spring and summer of 1998, the Clinton Administration was deadlocked. Tenet had essentially vetoed covert operations to seize bin Laden. Clinton might have wanted to get bin Laden, but he didn't want to overrule the Pentagon to do it. Neither could the president stomach sending thousands of troops into harm's way, as General Shelton proposed.
America was at war with bin Laden. But on America's side it was a phony war, while America's adversaries were waging a real one.